No sanction for solicitor who threatened firm over complaint

SDT: Fine would be disproportionate in the circumstances

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has decided not to sanction a solicitor who threatened his former law firm with blowing the whistle on alleged legal aid contract breaches if it did not withdraw a complaint about him.

The SDT said Peter Maxfield Martin, who successfully challenged findings of dishonesty at the High Court earlier this year, would have been fined £2,000 for acting with a lack of integrity had he not already been suspended for over six months while waiting for the court hearing.

The solicitor was suspended for 12 months in September last year for faking a director’s declaration on his reaccreditation form for the Law Society’s mental health panel and then trying to coerce the firm into telling the society that it was a misunderstanding.

The original tribunal found that Mr Maxfield Martin, who qualified in 1989, had acted dishonestly and without integrity in filling out the form so that it appeared that a director of Gomer Williams & Co in Llanelli had certified that the information it contained was correct.

The usual outcome where dishonesty is found is a strike-off, but the SDT described what had happened as a “one-off event” in which the act of completing the declaration would have taken a “matter of moments”. This justified a 12-month suspension instead.

The SDT also found his culpability was low because he had acted on the director’s “implied authority”.

The High Court ruled in February this year that the tribunal had applied the test for dishonesty incorrectly and given insufficient weight to the fact that, at the time, Mr Maxfield Martin believed that the director had authorised him to make the fake declaration.

The solicitor did not appeal the finding that he acted with a lack of integrity after his dismissal in 2018 by threatening the law firm with blowing the whistle on alleged breaches of its legal aid contract in a bid to have it withdraw its complaint to the Law Society about him. He did not carry out the threat.

The High Court remitted this issue to a fresh tribunal to reconsider sanction only, directing that the parties bear their own costs.

Mr Maxfield Martin’s advocate told the tribunal that following his dismissal, he had “lost his job and faced financial ruin”. He had secured employment as a Covid-19 testing supervisor and “spent the winter months working outdoors on the minimum wage”.

Following the High Court ruling, Mr Maxfield Martin had returned to practice and was “rebuilding his career and his client base”, though he estimated that it would take 18 months to return his career to where it had been before the disciplinary proceedings.

“In assessing culpability, the tribunal found that the motivation at the time Mr Maxfield Martin sent the email was to threaten the firm into withdrawing the complaint.

“However, the tribunal accepted that he was angry and fearful at the time he sent it and he did not follow through on his threat, even though the firm did not withdraw the complaint.”

There were no aggravating factors and there were mitigating factors, including Mr Maxfield Martin’s genuine insight, his full co-operation with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the tribunal, and the fact that it was a single episode.

The tribunal determined that the seriousness of the misconduct was such that no order or a reprimand were insufficient and the appropriate sanction was a financial penalty, which “would have been” a fine of £2,001 – a pound above the SRA’s internal fining limit.

However, given that the solicitor had been suspended for six months and 20 days between the original SDT order and the High Court ruling, and the impact of this on his finances and career, the tribunal concluded that it would be disproportionate and not in the interests of justice to impose a sanction.

The SDT decided it was appropriate to make no order.

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